The screaming woke her up again. She knew it shouldn’t scare her after all this time but it did. It was the kind of earth shattering, soul shaking scream that struck her to the core. She wished that she could be stronger, she had to be stronger. The next seconds were of the utmost importance. She got up from her bed and crossed the room to where her baby sister slept. The girl was always amazed that her sister could sleep so soundly. She grabbed her from the warmth of the crib and placed her on the cold hardwood, underneath the bed. Next, she ran out of her room, to her brothers. He was already awake when she entered the room. He was the middle child, at four years old he was already smart enough to know not to make a sound when their parents fought like this. He was crying silently, his big brown eyes staring up at her, his blonde hair disheveled and matted. The girl wrapped her arms around him and took him from his room into hers. She locked the bedroom door behind them and joined her brother and sister under the bed. They lay there together; huddled, quiet.
The walls around them seemed to shake as yet another fight broker out between their parents. Their mother was shrieking, panicked.
“You dumb slut, you whore!”
“Please Sean, I’m begging you please. Please, honey be reasonable.”
“I know you cheated! You filthy, stupid bitch I know you cheated on me! She looks nothing like me!”
“Sean, she’s yours, you know she is…”
Their screams faded as they went towards the front of the house. The three children held each other, doing all they could to keep quiet. The girl knew that as long as they remained silent their parents would forget about them. The wouldn’t come in as long as they didn’t give themselves away. Even the youngest, who was only a year old, seemed to know the importance of their silence. The oldest girl looked at her brother, he was still crying but it was obvious that sleep was starting to overcome him again. His eyes drooped, seeming to get heavier and heavier. The girl rubbed his back gently, trying to get him to relax, to just give in to the exhaustion that he felt. She was feeling that same nagging, pulling exhaustion herself but she fought it fiercely. She had to keep her siblings safe, she had to know that they would all be okay. Even though she was just a child herself, she felt an immense amount of responsibility for her two younger siblings. They were hers to care for. Maybe it wasn’t fair, maybe it wasn’t something that the other kids would ever have to deal with, but it was her life.
Sleep eventually came for all the children, huddled close under the eldest child’s bed. When she awoke, her neck was stiff and there were tears and snot dried to her face. She rubbed her eyes furiously and then looked to the clock, her heart suddenly racing from a surge of anxiety. It was almost time for them to be at school. She had just started the third grade and she didn’t want to be late again. She woke the other two and started getting clothes for her and her sister. She dressed the baby first, then the baby. They didn’t have any clean clothes left since their parents had for gotten to do laundry… again. The girl did the best that she could, she wished that she knew how to run the washer herself. The laundry room was in the basement. In the dark and damp of that room there sat mountainous piles of laundry, all covered with mold and mildew from being abandoned for so long.
After she and her sister were dressed she moved towards the bedroom door cautiously. She turned the handle ever so slowly, not wanting to alert anyone in the house.
“You two stay here, I’m going to make sure it’s okay for us to leave.”
Her brother nodded back to her, his lips pursed. He seemed almost as if he was trying to contain a scream, or perhaps a sob. It broke her heart to leave them alone like that but she had to see if it was safe for them to leave. She opened the door and crept out. She stood on her tiptoes, holding her breath. She walked down the hall to her parent’s room. Each step she took was measured and precise. The door at the end of the hallway was maybe ten feet away, but to her it seemed to stretch for miles. She felt almost like a spy, going on a secret mission. She made it a game in her head; whoever could get to the bedroom and peek inside without being caught was the winner. This gave her the confidence that she needed to make it the last few steps. She was a world class spy now, no one could hurt her.
The door was locked when she got there. She peered into the room through the crack between the bottom of the door and the floor. Her mother lay in the middle of the room, half naked and clearly asleep. She couldn’t see her father. That was good at least. Feeling more confident, she went into the kitchen to get a knife and a fork. Somewhere along the line she had figured out how to unlock her mother’s bedroom door and did so in seconds. She entered the room and examined the scene that lay before her.
Her mother was alone in the room, she probably passed out after the fight with her husband. The room around them was a mess. Drug paraphernalia lay scattered everywhere. Large chunk of crystal meth, as well as heroin and cocaine. Dirty spoons, bongs, things to ingest all manners of poison were strewn throughout the room. The girl didn’t know what any of those things were. So, in her mind the normalcy continued. How could one know that these things, that happened in her life everyday weren’t normal? It was all she knew. She knew that it wasn’t right to use these poisons, these drugs, and she had begged her mother on numerous occasions to stop. What she didn’t know what just how horrible they were, and that unlike cigarettes, they were not something that other people’s parents did.
There was a heavy acrid smell that seemed to permeate from the walls. It was thick and chemically sweet, she could almost taste it. Clothes and garbage sat together in massive piles, making it nearly impossible to walk without stepping on something. In the center of all the chaos was her mother. Her long brown hair lay in tangles around her, her face was tear streaked and almost as dirty as her children’s. It was obvious that she hadn’t bathed in some time, and from the smell of her, that she had been using again, despite promises to stop. She was a mess, yet her daughter thought that she was the epitome of beauty.
For some reason, she loved her mother. Despite all the pain, all the fear, she truly loved and wanted more than anything to take care of her. She felt a desire to earn her praise and to make her stop all these things that hurt her. She wanted to be loved just as much as she wanted all of the hurt to go away. She shook her mother, first softly and then more forcefully. Her mother stirred slightly, and then went back into a deep drug induced sleep. She tried again, she shook her mother, and this time she woke begrudgingly.
“What?” she asked.
“I need to go to school mama; I’ll get my brother ready for his school too but you have to take care of the baby.”
“What… What’s going on?”
“Mama, please you have to get up. Please, please don’t be sick again I have to go to school. I can’t take care of you all the time. You have to take care of the baby today so I can go to school. I have a test today.”
Her mother rose from the bed that she slept on, “Okay, I’m sorry baby I just don’t feel good today.”
“I know, but you have to take care of her. If you can’t you can call the school and tell them to send me home. Please try mama.”
“You’re such a smart girl… You’re smarter than I ever was.”
With that the girl turned and left the room. She didn’t know where her father was, but it was obvious that he was gone. The house was quiet and calm which it rarely was when he was around. For him, there were good days and bad days. On the good days, he was the best dad in the world. He would push the kids on the swings and give them treats and tell them how much he loved them. These days were seeming few and far between now. More often than not he had bad days. On the bad days, it was hard to know who he was exactly. There were so many people living in his mind, speaking to him and feeding him all kinds of lies and secrets. The girl liked the good days, and she was afraid of the bad.
She went back into her bedroom where her siblings were waiting for her. Her brother still needed to be dressed so she took him into his room and picked an outfit for him. They both went into the bathroom to brush their teeth. She did her best to get him clean and his hair combed, but it was becoming more and more of a struggle. They needed to bathe desperately. Unfortunately, the bathtub was filled with grime and neither of the children knew how to turn it on. She put her hair in a ponytail, her favorite hairstyle. She had taught herself how to tie her hair back about a month ago and did so every day since with pride.
Once they were both dressed and ready for the school day, she took the three of them into the kitchen. There wasn’t much to eat but they managed. She found cereal in one of the cupboards and milk in the fridge. She poured a bowl for herself and her brother and got crackers for the baby. She wasn’t quite full at the end of her meal, but she knew there wasn’t anything she could do to fix that. She left the kitchen and went to her mother’s room. She had fallen back to sleep and the girl shook her more vigorously this time.
“Mama get up.”
“…What…?” She said, just barely muttering the word.
“I have to leave now you have to get up.”
The girl went to the kitchen and got her brother ready for the walk to school. She put his shoes on, one foot at a time and handed him his backpack. She got out a can of soup, and warmed it in the microwave for her mother. She was so sick all the time and the girl just wanted to do what she could to make her feel better. She didn’t really know how, but she thought the soup would help her mother stop trembling so violently. She got her baby sister from the high chair and took her into their mother’s room with the bowl. Upon seeing her child, her mom was able to raise herself up from the bed just a little more.
“Oh, my baby!” She said, almost as if she had forgotten she had one.
“Yes, you have to take care of her, I have to go now.”
There was a sadness in her heart as she turned to leave her mother and sister. She desperately wanted to stay and take care of the both of them. School was important to her though, and she had to go. She had missed so much this year to take care of her mom and sister and could not afford to miss anymore.
She and her brother walked to school hand in hand as they did most mornings. The school was close, so she was able to get him there on time. He went to a daycare that was right next to her school so she dropped him off there each day before heading to class herself. If, that is, she was lucky enough to go. Third grade had been her favorite so far. She absolutely adored her teacher, who was young and had a nose ring. She admired her more than anyone else in her life and wanted to grow up to be just like her, including the ring. Despite setbacks at home, she excelled in the classroom. She loved learning and her teachers had always been impressed with how quiet, polite and focused she was. She took pride in the fact that she was more mature than others her age. She looked forward to the escape that the school day provided her. She was able to read the books that she liked and see her friends. She was allowed to be a child and she cherished every moment of it.
Today in class they would be studying vocabulary words. At home the girl would often read to escape from everything. She absolutely adored reading and learning new words. It was one of her favorite things. When she read, she was allowed to be anyone or anything that she wanted. She could completely escape into other worlds and places, even if she had never been. She thought that maybe that was why she loved school so much, because it allowed her a chance learn more about the things that she was passionate about. When she was younger, her mother used to do science experiments with her in their backyard. She taught her about the water cycle and how plants grow. Her mother had stressed to her from a very young age that it was important for the girl to be smarter than she was. The girl was going to go to college someday, because she needed to be better than her mama. Because of her mother’s insistence and enthusiasm about the subject, the girl listened and did the very best she could in school. She loved when her mom would read her to sleep and sing her songs about gardening and the sunshine. That was before everything changed though. Her parents didn’t get bad until they had moved into the new house. She could remember a time that they had all seemed so normal, and so happy. After her sister was born things like that never happened. Their parents didn’t have time to care for them because they were too busy filling their minds and bodies with poison.
The school day had ended before she knew it. Every day she got to go to class did though. She had enjoyed recess with her friends, a hot meal that she didn’t have to make for herself, and the freedom of childhood. The final bell of the day rang and the students rushed to grab their backpacks and meet their parents outside. Their days were probably just looking up, with the prospect of being at home surrounded by love and comfort. For the girl, it was different. She knew that but at the same time, she didn’t. She grabbed her coat and bag just like everyone else, but she was in no hurry to go. She let the seconds stretch on into infinity, taking as much time as she could. Once her coat was on and she couldn’t stall any more she went out to join her classmates. Maybe she would get her brother and spend just a little longer playing today.
Stepping out into the sunshine of fall she let her eyes adjust to the scene around her. The leaves were turning vibrant oranges, reds and yellows. They clung desperately to their branches, wild and fluttering as the wind threatened to knock them from their homes in the sky and down to the ground. She loved this time of year, because it was beautiful and sad. There could be beauty in death, she thought and that was proven by the bright happy colors of the leaves. Children were rushing around to meet their parents or to steal a few more minutes on the playground. She searched for her friends in the crowd and then stopped dead in her tracks. Her father stood just a few feet in front of her. She was petrified. His hair was gelled into spikes and he was wearing a black leather jacket. He was usually quite intimidating but seeing him here, at the school, her safe place… it almost knocked the wind out of her. He walked toward her, with a wide smile on his face. She hesitated, but let him pick her up and swing her around. He reached into the vast expanse of one of his jacket pockets and pulled out a sucker for her. She eyed it with some suspicion but accepted. Just then a boy from her class walked by.
“Oh man! You’re so lucky! You have to coolest dad ever; my dad never gives me suckers.”
Her father laughed and she couldn’t help but laugh herself. It was strange how twisted people’s perspectives can be when they can’t see the full picture. Her dad was having a good day it seemed, if that boy had seen him on a bad day he would not have been as jealous.
She and her father walked hand in hand to the daycare to pick up her brother. He signed the boy out and they all walked home together. The girl holding her father’s hand, and the boy proudly riding on his shoulders. It was the best day that they had had in a long time. They kicked leaves together and laughed. The crunching sound they made beneath their feet was almost as satisfying as the joy they all felt in that moment. They were a family. The girl was beaming, for the first time in what felt like months she had her dad back. She didn’t want to let him go. That’s when she noticed a strange shape in his pocket, something silver and black.
“Papa, what is that?” She said, pointing to it.
“Oh nothing. You know how I told you I’m a super hero? I’m going to use it to kill the bad guys.”
“You don’t need to kill them. The police can kill them.”
“No, the police are useless. They need a hero like me.”
“No… that’s not right papa.”
“Don’t worry about it sweetheart, we’ll have a house in heaven.”
He wouldn’t answer any more of her questions after that. When they got home she sat in the living room with her brother. They watched cartoons in peace for a while. Then their parents got into it again. This time there was something more sinister in their voices. The girl noticed that something was horribly wrong and tried to reach for her brother. It was too late. Their parents came crashing out of their bedroom, screaming bloody murder. Their mother was clutching the baby tight to her chest. There was so much terror in her eyes, it was unlike anything they had ever seen. Something was going to happen. Something really, really bad was going to happen. The room had an almost electric feeling. Everything and everyone in it seemed super charged.
They stumbled from the back room towards the front of the house, where the girl and boy sat quiet, mouths agape. As they moved closer, the siblings tightened their grasp on one another. Their dad had a strange look in his eyes. They didn’t know that it was from the mix of schizophrenia, cocaine and meth he had been working on for the last hour. His face was red with rage and the increased blood flow from the drugs. He was insane. He had broken.
“WHY CAN’T YOU JUST LISTEN TO ME??”
“Sean, please look your baby is crying.”
He shoved them both violently into the wall. Her mother’s head started bleeding. The girl screamed and quickly covered her mouth. She had broken the rules; she hadn’t kept quiet. Her dad turned to look at both her and her brother now. His face softened for a moment, and then hardened again.
“I’ll build you a house in heaven,” he said quietly.
“Sean, what do you mean? Why are you saying this?”
“I’ll build you a house in heaven. It’ll be quick for you.” This time he spoke a little louder.
“I don’t…. I don’t understand you.”
“It’ll be quick for you. It won’t hurt too much.”
“YOU’RE SCARING ME SEAN!!” their mother was frantic now, still clutching the baby close to her chest.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be quick for you. It’ll be longer for me. It’ll hurt more for me.”
With that he pulled the gun out of his front pocket, where the girl had seen it earlier. He raised it and aimed directly at their mother’s face. Their mother was still screaming.
The girl watched all of this from her spot on the couch. Her heart pounded in her chest, it felt almost like it was about to break free. Sweat beaded on her forehead and in her palms. She would have to be brave. She would have to be very, very brave and she would have to do it now. She was strong. She let her mind drift back to the game that she was playing just this morning. She was a spy again, and her dad was a villain that needed to be stopped. Her mother became her damsel in destress. She was a world-renowned spy. Nothing could hurt her now, and she had to be strong. She was strong. Stronger than even she knew. She took several deep breathes and then ran at her father with all of her force. She was small, but with a running start she was able to catch him off guard. He staggered and the gun pointed up into the air. He shot several rounds into the ceiling. Everything moved so slowly now… the girl was screaming both out of fear and shear rage.
But the reality is something that was a little too hard for the girl to understand. That’s why she made herself the spy, so that she could have a reason for the violence to have ended.
Their mother’s whole body seemed to be convulsing and heaving and she begged her husband not to shoot her. The baby was red faced and terrified in her arms. Several moments passed by like this. Eventually their mother ran out of breath and could not scream anymore. Their father remained motionless through all of this, his arm still raised, gun in hand.
His jaw seemed to slacken and he looked around the room, confused, as if he had just woken from some terrible dream. He looked at his wife and daughter in front of him, then down at the gun in his hand. His face contorted as if he had just realized what he was doing. He looked from the two in front of him to his two children that were huddled together on the couch. Tears started streaming down his face.
“I’m so so sorry” he whispered.
He turned and left the house. The girl tried to call after him but he wouldn’t even look back. He got into his car and drove away. That was the last the girl ever saw of him.